|Illustration by Simon Birch|
Hollis was in the back at a table piled with books and a space among them where he was writing when Carol came in.
Hello, she said.
Well, look who's here, he said coolly. Hello.
She was wearing a gray jersey sweater and a narrow skirt as always, dressed well.
Didn't you get my message? she asked.
You didn't call back.
Weren't you going to?
Of course not, he said.
He looked wider than the last time and his hair, halfway to the shoulder, needed to be cut.
I went by your apartment but you'd gone. I talked to Pam, that's her name, isn't it? Pam.
We talked. Not that long. She didn't seem interested in talking. Is she shy?
No, she's not shy.
I asked her a question. Want to know what it was?
Not especially, he said.
He leaned back. His jacket was draped over the back of the chair and his sleeves rolled partway up. She noticed a round
wristwatch with a brown leather strap.
I asked her if you still like to have your cock sucked.
Get out of here, he ordered. Go on, get out.
She didn't answer, Carol said.
He had a moment of fear, of guilt almost, about consequences.
On the other hand, he didn't believe her.
So, do you? she said.
Leave, will you? Please, he said in a civilized tone. He made a dispersing motion with his hand. I mean it.
I'm not going to stay long, just a few minutes. I wanted to see you, that's all. Why didn't you call back?
She was tall with a long, elegant nose like a thoroughbred. What people look like isn't the same as what you remember. She had been coming out of a restaurant one time, down some steps long after lunch in a silk dress that clung around the hips and the wind pulled against her legs. The afternoons, he thought for a moment.
She sat down in the leather chair opposite and gave a slight, uncertain smile.
You have a nice place.
It had the makings of one, two rooms on the garden floor with a little grass and the backs of discreet houses behind, though there was just one window and the floorboards were worn. He sold fine books and manuscripts, letters for the most part, and had too big an inventory for a dealer his size. After ten years in retail clothing he had found his true life. The rooms had high ceilings, the bookcases were filled and against them, on the floor, a few framed photographs leaned.
Chris, she said, tell me something. Whatever happened to that picture of us taken at the lunch Diana Wald gave at her mother's house that day? Up there on that fake hill made from all the old cars? Do you still have that?
It must have gotten lost.
I'd really like to have it. It was a wonderful picture. Those were the days, she said. Do you remember the boathouse we had?
I wonder if you remember it the way I remember it.
That would be hard to say. He had a low, persuasive voice. There was confidence in it, perhaps a little too much.
The pool table, do you remember that? And the bed by the windows.
He didn't answer. She picked up one of the books from the table and was looking through it; e.e. cummings. The Enormous Room, dust jacket with some small chips at bottom, minor soil on title page, otherwise very good. First edition.
The price was marked in pencil on the corner of the flyleaf at the top. She turned the pages idly.
This has that part in it you like so much. What is it, again?
Jean Le Negre.
Still unrivaled, he said.
Makes me think of Alan Baron for some reason. Are you still in touch with him? Did he ever publish anything? Always telling me about Tantric yoga and how I should try it. He wanted to show it to me.
So, did he?
She was leafing through the pages with her long thumbs.
They're always talking about Tantric yoga, she said, or telling you about their big dicks. Not you, though. So, how is Pam, incidentally? I couldn't really tell. Is she happy?
She's very happy.
That's nice. And you have a little girl now, how old is she again?
Her name is Chloe. She's six.
Oh, she's big. They know a lot at that age, don't they?
They know and they don't know, she said. She closed the book and put it down. Their bodies are so pure. Does Chloe have a nice body?
You'd kill for it, he said casually.
A perfect little body. I can picture it. Do you give her baths? I bet you do. You're a model father, the father every little girl ought to have. How will you be when she's bigger, I wonder? When the boys start coming around.
There're not going to be a lot of boys coming around.
Oh, for God's sake. Of course there will. They'll be coming around just quivering. You know that. She'll have breasts and that first, soft pubic hair.
You know, Carol, you're disgusting.
You don't like to think of it, that's all. But she's going to be a woman, you know, a young woman. You remember how you felt about young women at that age. Well, it didn't all stop with you. It continues, and she'll be part of it, perfect body and all. How is Pam's, by the way?
Can't you tell?
I wasn't paying attention.
Do you still have sex? she asked unconcernedly.
There are times.
I don't. Rarely.
That's a little hard to believe.
It never measures up, that's the trouble. It's never what it should be or used to be. How old are you now? You look a little heavier. Do you exercise? Do you go to the steam room and look down at yourself?
I don't have the time.
Well, if you had mote time. If you were free you'd be able to steam, shower, put on fresh clothes and, let's see, not too early to go down to, what, the Odeon and have a drink, see if anyone's there, any girls. You could have the bartender offer them a drink or simply talk to them yourself, ask if they were doing anything for dinner, if they had any plans. As easy as that. You always liked good teeth. You liked slim arms and, how to put it, great tits, not necessarily big--good-sized, that's all. And long legs. Do you still like to tie their hands? You used to like to, it's always exciting to find out if they'll let you do it or not. Tell me, Chris, did you love me?
Love you? He was leaning back in the chair. For the first time she had the impression he might have been drinking a little more than usual these days. Just the look of his face. I thought about you every minute ofthe day, he said. I loved everything you did. What I liked was that you were absolutely new and everything you said and did was. You were incomparable. With you I felt I had everything in life, everything anyone ever dreamed of. I adored you.
Like no other woman?
There was no one even close. I could have feasted on you forever. You were the intended.
And Pam? You didn't feast on her?
A little. Pam is something different.
In what way?
Pam doesn't take all that and offer it to someone else. I don't come back from a trip unexpectedly and find an unmade bed where you and some guy have been having a lovely time.
It wasn't that lovely.
That's too bad.
It was far from lovely.
So, why did you do it, then?
I don't know. I just had the foolish impulse to try something different. I didn't know that real happiness lies in having the same thing all the time.
She looked at her hands. He noticed again her long, flexible thumbs.
Isn't that right? she asked coolly.
Don't be nasty. Anyway, what do you know about true happiness?
Oh, I've had it.
Yes, she said. With you.
He looked at her. She did not return his look, nor was she smiling.
I'm going to Bangkok, she said, well. Hong Kong first. Have you ever stayed at the Peninsula Hotel?
I've never been to Hong Kong.
They say it's the greatest hotel anywhere, Berlin, Paris,
Well, I wouldn't know.
You've been to hotels. Remember Venice and that little hotel by the theater? The water in the street up to your knees?
I have a lot of work to do, Carol.
Oh, come on.
I have a business.
Then how much is this e.e. cummings? she said. I'll buy it and you can take a few minutes off.
It's already sold, he said.
Still has the price in it.
He shrugged a little.
Answer me about Venice, she said.
I remember the hotel. Now let's say good-bye.
I'm going to Bangkok with a friend.
He felt a phantom skip of the heart, however slight.
Good, he said.
Molly. You'd like her.
We're traveling together. You know Daddy died.
I didn't know that.
Yes, a year ago. He died. So my worries are over. It's a nice feeling.
I suppose. I liked your father.
He'd been a man in the oil business, sociable, with certain freely admitted prejudices. He wore expensive suits and had been divorced twice but managed to avoid loneliness.
We're going to stay in Bangkok for a couple of months, perhaps come back through Europe, Carol said. Molly has a lot of style. She was a dancer. What was Pam, wasn't she a teacher or something? Well, you love Pam, you'd love Molly.
You don't know her, but you would. She paused. Why don't you come with us? she said.
Hollis smiled slightly.
Shareable, is she? he said.
You wouldn't have to share.
It was meant to torment him, he knew.
Leave my family and business, just like that?
Gauguin did it.
I'm a little more responsible than that. Maybe it's something you would do.
If it were a choice, she said. Between life and...
Life and a kind of pretend life. Don't act as if you didn't understand. There's nobody that understands better than you.
He felt an unwanted resentment. That the hunt be over, he thought. That it be ended. He heard her continue.
Travel. The Orient. The air of a different world. Bathe, drink, read...
You and me.
And Molly. As a gift.
Well, I don't know. What does she look like?
She's good-looking, what would you expect? I'll undress her for you.
I'll tell you something funny, Hollis said, something I heard. They say that everything in the universe, the planets, all the galaxies, everything—the entire universe—came originally from something the size of a grain of rice that exploded and formed what we have now, the sun, stars, earth, seas, everything there is, including what I felt for you. That morning on Hudson Street, sitting there in the sunlight, feet up, fulfilled and knowing it, talking, in love with one another—I knew I had everything life would ever offer.
You felt that?
Of course. Anyone would. I remember it all, but I can't feel it now. It's passed.
I have something more than that now. I have a wife I love and a kid.
It's such a cliche, isn't it? A wife I love.
It's just the truth.
And you're looking forward to the years together, the ecstasy.
It's not ecstasy.
You can't have ecstasy daily.
No, but you can have something as good, she said. You can have the anticipation of it.
Good. Go ahead and have it. You and Molly.
I'll think of you, Chris, in the house we'll have on the river in Bangkok.
Oh, don't bother.
I'll think of you lying in bed at night, bored to death with it all.
Quit it, for God's sake. Leave it alone. Let me like you a little bit.
I don't want you to like me. In a half whisper she said, I want you to curse me.
Keep it up.
It's so sweet, she said. The little family, the lovely books. All right, then. You missed your chance. Bye, bye. Go back and give her a bath, your little girl. While you still can, anyway.
She looked at him a last time from the doorway. He could hear the sound of her heels as she went through the front room. He could hear them go past the display cases and towards the door where they seemed to hesitate, then the door closing.
The room was swimming, he could not hold on to his thoughts. The past, like a sudden tide, had swept back over him, not as it had been but as he could not help remembering it. The best thing was to resume work. He knew what her skin felt like, it was silky. He should not have listened.
On the soft, silent keys he began to write: Jack Kerouac, typed letter signed ("Jack"), 1 page, to his girlfriend, the poet Lois Sorrells, single-spaced, signed in pencil, slight crease from folding. It was not a pretend life.